The doomed flight of Jesse Seligman

James Ferguson recalls the tragic pioneer who brought the air age to the region

  • Jesse Seligman. Illustration by Tracey Johnson

Dozens of flights arrive at and depart from Jamaica’s two international airports every day, bringing thousands of tourists, Jamaicans living overseas, family and friends – to the island. In Montego Bay alone, some 4,000 flights depart each month, serving 82 destinations. Kingston is less busy, but there is still a steady stream of jets heading to and from the Palisadoes, the narrow sandspit on which the capital’s airport lies. A further 12 smaller airports and landing strips cater to domestic and recreational flying.

In Jamaica the plane has replaced sugar as king. The island depends on aviation for its economic growth and its daily existence. People and goods fly in and out incessantly, linking Jamaica to the wider Caribbean, North America and the rest of the world.

So it is odd to remember that the whole aeroplane culture is still relatively young. Just over 80 years ago, in December 1930, the first commercial flight arrived when a twin-engine Pan Am flying boat from Miami landed in Kingston’s harbour with 22 passengers aboard. Palisadoes Airport was up and running 11 years later and regular commercial flights began in 1944, making water landings a thing of the past.

But before even these tentative advances, the historic first manned flight in Jamaica took place on December 20, 1911, a century ago, and it lasted just five minutes.

The world’s first-ever piloted flight is, of course, a matter of historical controversy, with various challenges to the widely accepted view that the American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright led the way in December 1903. Even so, the then-risky business of flying was still very much in its infancy when one Jesse Seligman decided to demonstrate this technological miracle in Jamaica. (I am indebted to Jamaica’s newspaper The Gleaner and Joy Lumsden’s excellent website, joyousjam, for details of this historic event.)

We know little about Seligman, other than that he was a scion of a wealthy New York stockbroker, had married Mary – a fellow flying enthusiast – at a young age, and was 22 when he advertised his flying event in Jamaica. He had gained his flying licence in September 1911. The New York Sun announced that he would sail to the island and spend a week there before heading on to Panama for further aeronautical demonstrations. He was to be accompanied by Mary, a team of mechanics and a 50-horsepower Moisant monoplane. An advertisement offered would-be spectators “the chance to see man flying in the realms monopolised by the birds”. There is no record, however, of how much it cost to witness this unprecedented spectacle, though the advertisement spoke reassuringly of “popular prices of admission”.

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According to The Gleaner, a crowd of almost 1,000 people gathered on the Knutsford Park Race Course – now redeveloped as the New Kingston business district but then the HQ of the sponsoring Jamaica Jockey Club – at 3pm on an ominously windy but hot day. One can only imagine the mounting impatience as a 45-minute delay ensued due to 20mph winds and a sudden rain shower. But Seligman – “in a dark tweed suit, and black leather leggings…the very embodiment of cool, calm confidence” – was determined not to disappoint his audience, and as the plane’s engine revved, men who had been hanging on to its framework to maximise its initial speed let go and the flying machine accelerated eastwards down the racecourse. “It was a wonderful sight to see the ever-rising machine tearing at terrific speed to the east, and the crowd was too astounded even to cheer,” The Gleaner noted.

About 60 yards later the plane had gathered enough impetus to take off, reaching a dizzying altitude of 200 feet as it slowly circled the racecourse. “It was a marvellous spectacle, and one worth going miles to see,” said the paper. The thrill was short-lived, though, as Seligman brought it back to earth after only five minutes, ready to repeat the demonstration the following day. On that occasion the flight apparently lasted 15 minutes and attracted a smaller crowd of 600.

Nothing more is heard about the aviator’s Jamaican events, but a report on his subsequent adventures in Panama cryptically remarked that he “had been run out of Jamaica for failing to fly and live up to his promises”. Although nothing in The Gleaner hints at such a debacle in Jamaica, it seems that such anticlimaxes were an occupational hazard at the time. The same newspaper reported on January 20, 1912 that Seligman had faced an angry, stone-throwing mob in Costa Rica after cancelling at short notice owing to high winds, and when he eventually took off, “he did not rise above about 60 feet when he fell to the ground with a crash, narrowly escaping death and with the wing of the machine badly damaged”.

There is a rather sad postscript to this tale of youthful derring-do. It seems from information gathered by Joy Lumsden that Jesse Seligman abandoned flying quite soon after his Central American adventures and set up a business manufacturing leather goods (presumably gloves) in Gloversville, NY. There all seemed to go well until Seligman started experiencing acute and debilitating headaches, caused perhaps by injuries suffered in the course of flying accidents. Fearing for his sanity, Jesse killed himself at home on December 16, 1915, almost four years to the day after his inaugural Jamaica flight. Mary also died that day, probably in a suicide pact. Both were only 27 years old and left a three-year-old daughter.

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This personal tragedy aside, Seligman’s Jamaica flights ignited a passion for flying in the Caribbean that survives to this day. In January 1913 an American named Frank Boland landed his biplane in Port of Spain’s Savannah, representing the first flight in Trinidad (unfortunately he died on the 23rd when a demonstration went wrong). In March that year, Georgetown, British Guiana, witnessed a successful flight.

The advent of the First World War brought aviation into the military mainstream, and by 1917 several Jamaicans had enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps. Most remarkable was William Robinson Clarke, who survived being shot down by five enemy planes over German lines in France in 1917. He lived many years afterwards and was allegedly always happy to show off his scars.